Film Review – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that allows itself to be a powerful character study while simultaneously being full of abstract ideas and big concepts of community and family, never being overt, but simply letting it all wash over you and simmer. Coming out of a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury win, this is a film that has gone on from festival to festival, building its prestige and winning awards. With such built-in momentum, you never know what you are going to get and how you will respond to it. Will it meet your expectations? Will you think the hype goes too far and be disappointed? With all this in mind, there could be some trepidation, but it’s almost as if the film knows this ahead of time and does its best to keep everything subdued, so that when it does hit you, it’s on your own terms.
Our lead character and narrator is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the Bathtub. Bathtub is a community of poor people living in makeshift shacks below the levies of the local town, so the threat of flooding is constant. While very much aware of her situation in life and the harsh realities it entails, Hushpuppy still has a childlike innocence and is very much a part of how we view the events as they unfold. Quvenzhané Wallis is not only a child actress, but this is her first role, so to what extent she is the character or is really playing the character is unclear. Yet, she provides insight that only a child can. She can be precocious and funny in her observations as only a child can be, and also say with complete seriousness that her absent mother is gone because she was so in love with her that she had to leave. And she can then be wise beyond her years, due to the harshness of the life and her understanding of how the strong survive and how to get by in this world.
There is no central story thread in this film. There are events, like the threat of the big storm that is coming and what the effects it could have on the community could be. Then there is the behavior of Wink, which indicates that he is hiding something from Hushpuppy and is uncertain how to prepare her for what is happening. These two events centralize everything that happens and at times complement each other. Wink’s situation has the potential to change everything about Hushpuppy’s life—as does the weather, in how it can disrupt the world as well, and is a real danger to Hushpuppy and the community. This plays out not just in storms, but in the melting of ice caps, releasing prehistoric beasts called aurochs that were trapped in ice. While the aurochs are a fantastical element, they serve more as an allegory of how Hushpuppy and most of the residents of the Bathtub see how they need to survive. They seemed to me to be a bit over the top, and really didn’t have the weight that they seemed to be building to, but they never take away from anything, either. They start to fit in more with the story the more you think about it.
That was the whole movie for me. It is a slow-building film that became stronger the more time I had to process and think about it. There is a scene near the end that had me confused as to where Hushpuppy gets an idea to go somewhere. Yet, thinking back, little details are given that allude to what Hushpuppy believes is out there, and the idea around her actions and what she decides to do becomes clearer and clearer.
With all that is happening, it is the father/daughter dynamic between Hushpuppy and her father Wink that is the main thread of the film. Dwight Henry in his first role does a great job of keeping the balance of the major extremes of his character. He is a drunk, reckless man who can disappear and take risks that would make most parents cringe, yet he loves his daughter and is trying to give her the best life he knows how. You even start to root for him in his fight against society and the inevitable, because he believes in it so strongly. Hushpuppy is the same, in that she is aware of much of what is happening and makes her decisions with as much determination and realism—as well as reckless abandon—so you can tell she is very much her father’s child.
Beyond the acting, the camerawork is top notch. First-time director Benh Zeitlin has a great sense of knowing when to go for the jerky hand-held camera feel and when to play it straight. Zeitlin also should be praised, with fellow composer Dan Romer, for some of the best music I have heard in awhile; it keeps a light touch, yet there is a dark undertone to it as well, and it keeps us on edge without being overdone. We see the desperate situation, and there is sadness, yet the music never overcomes what is happening.
This is a film that may take a few viewings to get the full experience of what it is getting across. Even thinking about it while writing, I am seeing new details and concepts in my mind that make me what to see it again—not out of annoying confusion, but to see what else it has to offer. What it does have is a sharp sense of the details it wants to explore, while never being preachy or predictable. It is full of wonder and magic and simply needs to be seen to be believed.
Final Grade: A